A solo show by Vassily Nesterenko, a new gifted Russian artist, opened at the Moscow Manege a few days ago in official recognition of his talents. The Manege, which is located in the centre of Moscow, is Russia's most prestigious exposition hall, and Russian artists dream of showing their works there. It usually hosts grand retrospective shows by artists who are at the end of their career. In this connection Nesterenko's show is unprecedented, as he is only 36.
Several hundred canvases - landscapes, still lives and portraits - are on display. Although these works are impressive, they are overshadowed by Nesterenko's large biblical paintings and murals for Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Nesterenko's prolific nature is reminiscent of Michelangelo.
The career of Nesterenko is very successful. He was born in 1967 in Pavlodar and enrolled in a secondary art school in Moscow. While at the secondary school, Nesterenko impressed his teachers, who are usually chary of praise. He graduated with honours and then entered the highly selective Surikov Institute, Russia's premier art school. However, while he was at the institute he was drafted into the army and served in northern Russia. In 1988, he was discharged from the army and returned to Moscow to resume his studies.
As an undergraduate, in 1990 Nesterenko had a solo art show at the National Art Academy in Prague, which exhibited nothing but his institute sketches. The Kiev Art Museum bought his painting of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. His exposition in Tokyo coincided with the USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev's official visit to Japan. Mr Gorbachev attended it and praised the artist.
Nesterenko interrupted his studies at the Surikov Institute to study at the Pratt Institution in Brooklyn. New York City was infatuated with his realist painting. When Nesterenko was 25, he joined the exclusive American League of Professional Artists. At that time, he was not a member of any art guild in Russia. While in America, Nesterenko had several solo shows at the Ambassador gallery and several New York City banks.
When Nesterenko returned to Moscow, he painted his graduation painting, "The Triumph of the Russian Navy". Though Carl Bryullov's 1833 Art Academy graduation work, "The Last Days of Pompeii" was evidently the inspiration for Nesterenko's ambitious work, he decided to present something more optimistic.
The new show reflects the conflicting sides of Nesterenko - the monumentalist and the lyricist. He is unique as a landscape painter who skilfully and tenderly depicts Russia. Nesterenko follows the traditions of Savrasov, Levitan, Kuindji and Grabar. His small canvases of the army period are of particular interest.
Interestingly, he did not include any modern objects-planes, railways, electric lines, etc-in his landscapes. The artist intentionally ignores the present. His rural churches, quiet rivers, and roads that stretch to the horizon are reminiscent of Gogol's poetry and could have come from the mid-18th century.
This ideological maximalism made Nesterenko change from painting small and subtle landscapes to painting large canvases on the themes of Russian Orthodoxy and Russian history. A painting of a pompous Peter the Great watching heroes of the Poltava Battle entering the city and colossal still lives of Peter's busts, swords and banners all logically brought Nesterenko to paint a portrait of Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexis II and other men of Church. Nesterenko also painted a ceremonial portrait of Russian opera prima donna Irina Arkhipova, rather unsuccessfully. "I see a lot of artistry but not much creativity," Pushkin would say.
Vassily Nesterenko deserves to be recognised. He remains an unsurpassed landscape painter, with brilliant sketches of the Crimea, Valaam Island, Mount Athos, Paris and Amsterdam. Though his monumental works proved to be of less success, it is his giant canvases portraying a Hollywood-style Christ with blue eyes that win hearts.
His secular and ecclesiastical rewards are tremendous. Nesterenko is a Merited Artist of Russia, and a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Arts. Patriarch Alexis blessed him to paint murals and canvases for the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a work that brought him the Order of St Sergius of Radonezh, supreme Church award.
Nesterenko's excellent copy of Zurbaran's devotional "The Virgin Mary as Child" is in an obscure corner of the Manege. He preserved the pensive tenderness of the original. He certainly shares the inspired piety of the Spanish genius.
So, Nesterenko's talent is at the crossroads now, with two roads spelling death and only one road leading to eternal life...